Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Ticket barriers, for and against

This is another railway-related entry. Skip it if it doesn’t interest you.

As you may know I do a fair amount of travel on trains, usually at least once a week. Over the past couple of years there has been a trend for train companies to introduce automatic ticket barriers at major stations – Bradford Interchange received its barriers earlier this year. To pass through, you need a valid ticket (or a pass or permit to travel) – if you don’t, you can’t enter or leave the platform area.

First of all, the advantages. The main reason for introducing ticket barriers is for revenue protection – ensuring that everyone who travels by train actually buys a ticket. It’s an unfortunate fact that people will try to blag a free train journey where possible; others may intend to pay but don’t get the opportunity (more on this later). Though we’re out of recession in the UK the economy is still in a bad way and the government has started making sweeping cuts to public spending to reduce our massive public deficit of several hundred squillion pounds; consequently less government money will be available to the railways. If the train companies want to make money or invest, then that money is going to have to come from passengers. Putting fares or car parking charges up is unpopular, and unfairly targets the honest people who pay for their train tickets. Ensuring everyone pays for their tickets should therefore increase revenue.

The other reason commonly cited by train companies is that they reduce anti-social behaviour on train platforms – people who are not intending to travel cannot get access to the platforms and therefore cannot loiter in waiting rooms and intimidate people.

But the barriers are not universally liked, and have been contested in a number of places; famously in York plans by National Express East Coast were dropped when planning permissions was refused as they would be out of keeping with the historic station building. In Sheffield, the station footbridge is also used as a thoroughfare to link the city centre with a residential area that is cut off by the railway line – plans to install barriers there have been postponed so that a new, second footbridge can be built as a thoroughfare leaving the station footbridge for paying passengers.

Where an insufficient number of barrier gates are provided, this can cause congestion. Also, while the barriers are computer-controlled, they have to be staffed by at least one human as some passes aren’t compatible with the barriers, or to cover any valid tickets that the barriers don’t recognise (such as some day rover tickets).

The fact that only fare-paying passengers are allowed through the barriers means that non-travellers who are offering assistance to friends or family who are travelling cannot pass through. This is a problem with elderly relatives who may need help carrying bags. Train-spotters and railway photography enthusiasts are also unable to get onto the platforms unless they have valid tickets. Technically those not intending to travel can buy a platform ticket, which will let them through the barriers for around 50p but isn’t valid on any trains, but such tickets are rarely publicised. A machine to issue them used to exist at Leeds station but I haven’t seen it recently.

Some people will arrive, through no fault of their own, by train at a station with barriers without a valid ticket. This will be because they have boarded at a small station where there is no ticket office or ticket machine, and have not been presented with the option of purchasing a ticket on board – on busy morning commuter trains, the conductor does not always have chance to walk through the train to sell tickets. These people therefore have to buy a ticket just to leave the station, even though they’ve already completed their journey.

Finally even when people can buy tickets at a ticket office or at a machine, by forcing people to have a ticket before travelling they are deprived of the chance to buy one on the train – an inconvenience if you’re in a hurry. However technically if a station has a ticket office and it’s open, you must buy a ticket before travelling anyway, regardless of whether there are barriers there. Exceptions apply – Grand Central are happy for their customers to buy on the train – but actually the barriers are just enforcing a pre-existing rule.

So there are a lot of problems caused by the barriers. But I can foresee them being installed in most major stations over the next few years. Despite the cost, and the need to employ people to man the barriers, installing them must make financial sense, as otherwise the train companies would not invest in them. And hopefully it will result in continued investment in the railways, even if the government is unable to provide the money. Either way, I think the barriers are here to stay, and, regardless of how people feel about them, we’ll have to get used to them.

2 Comments

  1. I must admit, way back in the day it was awfully easy to walk onto the platform, stand around, get on the train, arrive at your destination, and walk out of the station at the other end. Without ever showing anyone your ticket.
    Er, apparently. So I’m told.

  2. In Munich (Germany), the subway system has NO ticket barriers (the closest they have is an “olde style” machine which can print a date/time on your ticket to validate it for you – if you have the sort of ticket which needs validating). Quite a lot of stations are unmanned (or hardly manned). Very few guards/ticket collectors (I don’t think we saw one of either in a week).
    However, I’ve heard (but not experienced), that the random ticket checks – which the typical commuter can expect to encounter 2 or 3 times a year – have reasonably high fines and they actually follow up and retrieve the money.
    Oh, and the platforms and trains were always nice and clean and bright…